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William Penn
Admiral Sir William Penn, 1621–1670, a 1666 portrait of Penn by Peter Lely and part of the Flagmen of Lowestoft series
Born(1621-04-23)23 April 1621
St. Thomas Parish, Bristol, England
Died16 September 1670(1670-09-16) (aged 49)
Walthamstow, Essex, England
Allegiance Commonwealth of England
 Kingdom of England
Service/branch Royal Navy
Commands heldJamaica Station
Battles/warsEnglish Civil War
First Anglo-Dutch War
Second Anglo-Dutch War

Sir William Penn (23 April 1621 – 16 September 1670) was an English admiral and politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1660 to 1670. He was the father of William Penn, founder of the colonial Province of Pennsylvania, which is now the US state of Pennsylvania.

Early life

Penn was born in St Thomas Parish, Bristol to Captain Giles Penn, English militar and consul of Salé and his wife Joan Gilbert.[1] He served his apprenticeship at sea with his father.


Naval career

Coat of Arms of William Penn
Macroom Castle gatehouse

In the First English Civil War of 1642–1646, he fought on the side of the Parliament, and commanded a ship in the squadron maintained against the king in the Irish seas. The service was arduous and called for both energy and good seamanship. In 1648, he was arrested and sent to London, but was soon released, and sent back as rear-admiral in the Assurance. The exact cause of the arrest remains unknown, but it may be presumed that he came under suspicion of corresponding with the king's supporters. It is highly probable that he did so, for, until the Restoration of 1660, he was regularly in communication with the Royalists, while serving the parliament, or Cromwell, so long as their service was profitable, and making no scruple of applying for grants of the confiscated lands of the king's Irish friends.[2]

After 1650, Penn served as commander-in-chief of the southern fleet in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean in pursuit of the Royalists under Prince Rupert. After an action at Macroom in County Cork, Ireland he was awarded Macroom Castle. He was so active on this service that when he returned home on 18 March 1651 he could boast that he had not put foot on shore for more than a year.[2]

In the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654), he served in the navy of the Commonwealth of England, commanding squadrons at the battles of the Kentish Knock (1652), Portland, the Gabbard and Scheveningen (1653). In this last battle, a sniper from his ship killed Dutch admiral and fleet commander Maarten Tromp on the Dutch flagship Brederode.

In 1654, he offered to carry the fleet over to the king, but in October of the same year he had no scruple in accepting the naval command in the expedition to the West Indies sent out by Cromwell.[2] In 1655, he commanded the fleet that launched a bungled attack on La Hispaniola. He was not responsible for the shameful repulse at San Domingo, which was due to a panic among the troops.[2]Jamaica was ruled by the heirs of Christopher Columbus, until gradually the Catholic Church grew to dominate the island. The crypto-Jewish population following the strengthening of the church aided the English who seized the less desirable island for the Commonwealth régime, and Penn established the Jamaica Station there.[3][4][5] On their return, he and his military colleague, Robert Venables, were sent to the Tower. He made a humble submission, and when released retired to the estates of confiscated land he had received in Ireland.[2] On 20 December 1658, Penn was knighted by Henry Cromwell at Dublin Castle, but the Protectorate honour passed into oblivion at the Restoration in May 1660.[6][7]

Political career

In April 1660, Penn was elected as one of the Members of Parliament for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis and sat in the Convention Parliament.[6] He played a small part in the Restoration:[2] in May 1660 he was on the Earl of Sandwich's ship, the Naseby (later the Royal Charles), which was sent to bring King Charles II home to England from his exile at Amsterdam in the Dutch Republic. During the voyage, Penn made himself known to the Duke of York, who was soon to be appointed Lord High Admiral, and with whom he had a lasting influence.[8]

In 1661, Penn was re-elected as a member for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in the Cavalier Parliament. In the Second Anglo-Dutch War, he was flag captain at the Battle of Lowestoft (1665), serving under James, Duke of York, and later in the same year was admiral of one of the fleets sent to intercept Ruyter, despite suffering from gout.[9]

Although Penn was not a high-minded man, he is a figure of considerable importance in English naval history. As admiral and General at Sea for Parliament, he helped in 1653 to draw up the first code of tactics provided for the English navy, Duties of a Commander at Sea, 1664, Instructions by Sir W. Penn.[10] It became the basis of the "Duke of York's Sailing and Fighting Instructions", which continued for long to supply the orthodox tactical creed of the navy.[2] Penn was an early proponent of fighting in line ahead, so as to bring as much firepower as possible to bear.[11]


Penn's memorial in St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol

A key source for the adult life of Penn is the diary of his colleague at the Navy Board, and next door neighbour in Seething Lane, Samuel Pepys.[12] However, Pepys's assessments have to be tempered by the jealousy that he evidently held for Penn.[13]

In 1660, Penn was appointed a Commissioner of the Navy Board, where he worked with Pepys, Clerk of the Acts. The character of "mean fellow", or "false knave",[14] given him by Pepys is borne out by much that is otherwise known of him. He also was an excellent seaman and a good fighter.[2] Like Pepys and the Earl of Sandwich, Penn was a "moderate" Roundhead who succeeded in maintaining his position at the Restoration. Penn appears several times in Pepys diary. A typical entry from 5 April 1666 reads, "To the office, where the falsenesse and impertinencies of Sir W. Pen would make a man mad to think of."

He is also referenced in an entry from 1665, which states, "At night home and up to the leads [roof], were contrary to expectation driven down again with a stinke by Sir W. Pen's shying of a shitten pot in their house of office".

The diary entry for 4 July 1666 includes a long account of Penn's analysis of what was to be learned from the Four Days' Battle, which ended with the statement, "He did talk very rationally to me, insomuch that I took more pleasure this night in hearing him discourse then I ever did in my life in anything that he said."

As a native of the West Country, Sir William Penn is buried in the church of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol. His helm and half-armour are hung on the wall, together with the tattered banners of Dutch ships that he captured in battle. His portrait by Lely, part of the Flagmen of Lowestoft series, is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. After his death, his son, William, accepted the grant of land in the American colonies in lieu of money owed by the Crown to his father. William Penn had wanted to call the land "New Wales", which was objected to by the Secretary of State, Privy Council member and Welshman Leoline Jenkins. Penn instead put forward the name "Sylvania". The Council then chose to tweak this new name a bit by adding the prefix "Penn" to honour the late Admiral, William Penn's father. After some protestation from William Penn, he reluctantly accepted it.[15]

Personal life

Penn's son William at 22 years old in 1666; he later founded the Province of Pennsylvania, one of the initial Thirteen Colonies in British America

On 6 June 1643, he married Margaret Jasper, a daughter of John Jasper, a wealthy Dutch merchant from Rotterdam. They had three children:


  1. ^ Jenkins 1896, p. 14.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Hannay 1911, p. 99.
  3. ^ Cundall, p. xx
  4. ^ "Jewish pirates of the Caribbean". The Jerusalem Post | 9 April 2016. Retrieved 2 January 2024.
  5. ^ Kritzler, Edward (3 November 2009). Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean. New York: Anchor. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-0-7679-1952-4.
  6. ^ a b Ferris 1983.
  7. ^ Shaw 1906, p. 224.
  8. ^ "Penn, Sir William", in Latham, R (ed), The Diary of Samuel Pepys, volume X Companion (Bell & Hyman, 1983)
  9. ^ Tomalin, Claire (2003). Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (1st ed.). London: Penguin Books. p. 125. ISBN 0-140-28234-3.
  10. ^ Street, Lucie (1986). An Uncommon Sailor: A Portrait of Admiral Sir William Penn (1st ed.). Bourne End, Buckinghamshire: The Kensal Press. p. 112. ISBN 0-946041-47-4.
  11. ^ Latham, R.
  12. ^ Tomalin, Claire (2003). Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (1st ed.). London: Penguin Books. p. 142. ISBN 0-140-28234-3.
  13. ^ Tomalin, Claire (2003). Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (1st ed.). London: Penguin Books. p. 123. ISBN 0-140-28234-3.
  14. ^ The Diary of Samuel Pepys
  15. ^ Murphy, A R. William Penn: a life. Oxford University Press. 2019



Further reading

  • Street, Lucie (1988), An Uncommon Sailor A Portrait of Admiral Sir William Penn : English Naval Supremacy, New York: St. Martin's Press

External links

1893 text

This is the first mention in the Diary of Admiral (afterwards Sir William) Penn, with whom Pepys was subsequently so particularly intimate. At this time admirals were sometimes styled generals. William Penn was born at Bristol in 1621, of the ancient family of the Penns of Penn Lodge, Wilts. He was Captain at the age of twenty-one; Rear-Admiral of Ireland at twenty-three; Vice-Admiral of England and General in the first Dutch war, at thirty-two. He was subsequently M.P. for Weymouth, Governor of Kingsale, and Vice- Admiral of Munster. He was a highly successful commander, and in 1654 he obtained possession of Jamaica. He was appointed a Commissioner of the Navy in 1660, in which year he was knighted. After the Dutch fight in 1665, where he distinguished himself as second in command under the Duke of York, he took leave of the sea, but continued to act as a Commissioner for the Navy till 1669, when he retired to Wanstead, on account of his bodily infirmities, and dying there, September 16th, 1670, aged forty-nine, was buried in the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol, where a monument to his memory was erected.

This text comes from a footnote on a diary entry in the 1893 edition edited by Henry B. Wheatley.

21 Annotations

First Reading

David Brown  •  Link

Pennsylvania is actually named in honour of Admiral Penn - rather than his now more famous son.

PHE  •  Link

William Penn's memorial at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, can still be seen.

Sjoerd Spoelstra  •  Link

Charles II's Hat

Charles II once encountered the famed Quaker William Penn, whose faith prohibited him from removing his hat - as etiquette demanded of anyone in the monarch's presence. When, having exchanged niceties, Penn's hat remained firmly ensconced upon his head, the king - with a graceful flourish - removed his own. "Friend Charles," the Quaker said, "why dost thou uncover thyself?" "Friend Penn," the king replied, "in this place it is the custom for only one man at a time to keep his hat on."

Charles II, (1630-1685) English monarch; king of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1660-85)

[Sources: I. Poley, Friendly Anecdotes]

David Quidnunc  •  Link

John Aubrey on William Penn & his son

From Aubrey's Brief Lives (the edition edited by Oliver Lawson Dick; bracketed words are mine):

"William Penn [born 1644] was the eldest son of Sir William Penn ...

"His Majestie owing to his [the younger Penn's] father 10,000 pounds (which, with the interest of it, came not to lesse than 20,000 pounds) [L&M Companion volume says 16,000 pounds] did in consideration therof grant to him and his heirs a province in America which his Majesty was pleased to name Pennsylvania the 4th day of March 1681.

"Sir William Penn, Knight, his father, was a man of excellent naturall abilities, not equalled in his time for the knowledge of navall affayres: and instrumentall to the raysing of many families. Bred his son religiously; and, as the times grew loose, would have his sonn of the fashioon, and was therfore extreme bitter at his sonne's retirement. But this lasted not alwayes; for, in the conclusion of his life, he grew not only kind, but fonde; made him the judge and ruler of his Family; was sorry he had no more to leave him (and yet, in England and Ireland, he left him 1500 pounds per annum). But, which is most remarkeable, he that opposed his sonne's way because of the crosse that was in it to the world's Latitude, did himselfe embrace his faith, recommending to his son the plainesse and selfe deniall of it, sayeing, **Keep to the plainesse of your way, and you will make an end of the Priests to the ends of the Earth.** And so he deceased, desiring that none but his son William should close his eies (which he did).

vicente  •  Link

To Ye Just Memory of Sr. William Penn, Kt & Sometimes Generall;
borne at Bristol In 1621 son of Captain Giles
Penn severall years consul for ye English in ye Mediterranean of the Penns of Penn Lodge in the County of Wilts & those Penns of Penn in ye County of Bucks & by his Mother from ye Gilberts in ye County of Somerset, Originally of Yorkshire. Addicted from his youth to maritime affairs he was made Captain at ye years of 21. Rear-Admirall of Ireland at 23, Vice Admirall of Ireland at 24. Admirall to ye. Straightes at 29. Vice Admirall of England at 31 a Generall in ye First Dutch Warres at 32 whence retiring in Ano.1665.

The Will of Admiral Sir William Penn
6th October 1670

Pen will, shows sonne and daughter…

Pauline  •  Link

from L&M Companion (partial)
kt 1660 (1621-70). Navy Commissioner 1660-9. Bristol sea-captain and bred to the sea from an early age. Penn was (with Batten, to whom he had once been apprenticed) the most experienced seaman among Pepys's colleagues....he accepted a knighthood from Henry Cromwell in 1658. In the following year he went to England hoping for a naval appointment from the Rump. Monck gave him charge of the preparation of the fleet which sailed to bring home the king from exile. He was on board Sandwich's ship, and soon had made himself known to the duke of York. Probably at the Duke's request he presented a memorandum in June 1660 to the king about the government of the navy, which shows a considerable knowledge of administrative detail. In it he expounded the advantages of government in the Commonwealth manner by commissioners acting collectively and without rigidly defined duties. The reconstituted Navy Board set up shortly afterwards showed several traces of this advice and he was himself made a Commissioner. At about the same time he drew up for the Duke a new version of the Admiral's Instructions, issued later, in Jan. 1662. Pepys, who probably resented Penn's superior knowledge and his intimacy with the Duke, has hardly a good word to say for him either as a colleague or as a person....

Nix  •  Link

The Penn/Pepys Relationship --

From the article on Penn in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

"Penn came into residence at the Navy Office in Seething Lane on 27 July 1660, thus becoming a neighbour of his junior colleague Pepys, in whose diary the last phases of Penn's career are sharply described. Pepys, although welcoming Penn as ‘very sociable … and an able man’ (Pepys, Diary, 1.241) soon fell out with him over contracts and appointments, and above all because he saw him as enemy to his own patron Sandwich. Penn was ever thereafter ‘as false a fellow as ever was born’ (ibid., 7.68) and Pepys took every opportunity to denigrate Penn's social address, service career, and administrative probity and competence."

Cumgranissalis  •  Link

Penn before he was sidelined, or rusticated by Cromwell in 1656, for letting Venables [Col./Gen.] make a hash out of removing Hispanola from the Spanish crown, had a taste of Tower of London's hospitality suite, Venables appears to have been a disaster of the first order the epitomy of ineptness, and Penn received some of the backlash. S. Pepys may not understand some of Pens comments on fellow titled leftovers from the Cromwell period.
The story of how 2000 plus soldiers failed to capture Santa Domingo, defended by a few undernourished Islanders, is a good study of a combined ops.
Penns attitude, after this discovery of this classic in generalship and the rewards, I can be empathic with Sir Wm..

Terry F  •  Link

Another take on "Admiral Sir William Penn(b.1621 - d.1670)

"Penn was born, married and buried in Bristol. He was Cromwell's Sea General who was responsible, with General Venables, for the British capture of Jamaica in 1655. Jamaica became the base for British slavery and piracy and for British colonial expansion in the West (see Port Royal). Admiral Penn had also been rewarded for his services in Ireland to the Cromwellian Commonwealth with a castle and a confiscated estate in Ireland (1656, Macroom Castle). An interesting fact, which speaks of the continual duplicity of the Penn family, is that the Coat of Arms which appears with his battle armour at St Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol is a fraud. The Admiral and the Penn family were not entitled to use the Coat of Arms which belonged to the Penns of Penn in Buckinghamshire. The Admiral and his family merely appropriated the Coat of Arms just as they had appropriated their Irish estate and African slaves for themselves and the isle of Jamaica for England. William Penn, the Admiral's son, was to take this appropriation further with his proprietorship of Pennsylvania."…

Pedro  •  Link

30th December 1650.

Captain Penn’s squadron sailed from Falmouth to attack the Portuguese at sea. He took 36 prizes in the Atlantic.

Terry F  •  Link

"Admiral William Penn....loaned large sums to the King's ambitious building programme but, after his death, the cash strapped King could not repay the loan, when requested to do so by Penn's son (also named William). So the monarch offered him land in America instead, provided that it would be named after the favoured late Admiral. Thus the state of Pennsylvania came into being. Its [fraudulent] arms still incorporate those of the man whose name it bears."…

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

William Pen had all those qualifications of a sea-officer which natural courage and experience can give a man of a very moderate capacity. He was well qualified to act an under part, in executing, with alacrity and vigour, what had been planned by his superiors in command. He was vice-admiral, under Monck and Dean, in the famous sea-fight with the Dutch that continued three days, and in which the gallant Tromp was defeated. He was, without declaration of War, sent to take St. Domingo from the Spaniards. The design was well laid by Cromwell, and would have been executed with great facility by a Blake; but it exceeded the capacity of Pen. In this expedition he took Jamaica, a colony which cost a great deal of blood and treasure; but which, in process of time, proved advantageous to the nation. He was father of a much greater man than himself, who is well known among the Quakers as a preacher and a writer; and throughout the world as the founder and legislator of the colony of Pensylvania.
---A Biographical History of England. J. Granger, 1779.

Bill  •  Link

Penn, William, a native of Bristol, distinguished in the British navy as an able admiral. He was commander of the fleet in the reduction of Jamaica in 1655 by Venables, but he lost for a time the good opinion of the protector who confined him in the Tower for absenting himself from the American station without leave. He was member for Weymouth, and after the restoration he obtained a high command under the duke of York, and greatly contributed to the defeat of the Dutch fleet 1664. He was knighted by Charles II for his services, and died at his house, Wanstead, Essex, 1670, aged forty nine.
---Universal biography. J. Lemprière, 1810.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Pepys' opinion of Admiral William Penn's duplicity is born out by the fact that he loaned Charles II about 16,000l. in 1658. That's the debt which was still owed at Penn’s death in 1670.

per Pennsylvania Land Wars with Connecticut and Virginia
Author Don Corbly
Publisher, 2013
ISBN 1304092666, 9781304092663
Length 361 pages

Interestingly, Admiral Penn was knighted by Henry Cromwell at Dublin Castle on 20 December, 1658.

Like so many, Penn must have been on both sides of the English Civil Wars.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Admirals Penn and Venables always take the rap for the failure of the Caribbean adventure known as the Western Design. But a biography of Martin Noell Sr., a Navy Contractor, has a different opinion:


Martin Noell Sr.’s money bought him political influence. He and Povey were closely involved in directing government policy on the Caribbean colonies, particularly Barbados.

And Noell played a leading part in organizing and financing Cromwell’s ‘Western Design’ of 1655 against the Spanish colony of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). One well-informed observer identified Noell as ‘he who suggested the design of the West Indies’ to Cromwell.

In the event, the Western Design was a fiasco – partly because profiteering by Martin Noell Sr. and other contractors had deprived the expedition of vital supplies and equipment.

Repulsed from Hispaniola with heavy losses, Cromwell’s troops took Jamaica as a consolation prize. Not that Martin Noell Sr. was complaining. He had taken his usual cut regardless, and he was further rewarded with a grant from Cromwell of 20,000 acres on England’s new colony.

The seizure of Jamaica would provide a massive boost to the English sugar- industry and to the slave trade that sustained it. Noell Sr.’s plantation in Barbados was well-supplied with enslaved Africans to work the sugar-canes. But it was what he euphemistically termed his ‘Christian servants’ on the island, and the circumstances of their presence there, that landed him in trouble with his fellow MPs following his election for Stafford to Richard Cromwell’s Parliament in 1659.

Martin Noell Sr. MP was forced to defend himself against accusations in the House that he had violated English ‘liberties’ as a contractor for transporting Royalist prisoners to indentured servitude on Barbados. The victims of his ‘most unchristian and barbarous usage’ alleged that they been ‘bought and sold … from one planter to another … as horses and beasts’ (Diary of Thomas Burton, Esq. ed. J. T. Rutt (1828), iv. 255-73).

Noell admitted transporting prisoners to the island, but denied that he had effectively sold them into slavery or that they had been harshly treated. Indeed, he claimed that labor conditions for indentured servants on Barbados were better than those of the ‘common husbandman here’. The really hard work, the ‘grinding at the [sugar]-mills and attending at the furnaces or digging in the scorching island’, was mostly undertaken by African slaves, he insisted – and as he well knew, no one in the Commons cared about them.

Martin Noell Sr. MP shrugged off his grilling in the House, and he would emerge from the downfall of the Protectorate and the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 similarly unscathed.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.